COVINGTON, Ga. — Spring football has gone as fast as it came, but it left behind it a trail of developing storylines that we’ll begin to monitor as summer work begins, giving way to the beginning of the 2019 football season in a little less than two months.
What follows is five takeaways from the work that our three Newton County GHSA football teams did during the spring period, even as we look toward summer and countdown to what promises to be an intriguing and entertaining 2019 campaign.
1. Eastside’s offensive line could be a known strength. This time last year, some of us pundits were looking at the Eagles’ offensive line, wondering what would become of it after the departure of guys like Lamarius Benson and Spurgeon Gaither. New names popped up on the scene, such as Austin King and then-freshman James Amos. But even the known returners like Dustin Morgan and Bryant Byrd seemed undersized at best. But all last year’s front five did was pave the way to over 200 rushing yards per game, including a 1,000-yard ball carrier in Taylor Carter, while providing the protection quarterback Noah Cook needed to carve out for himself a breakout junior season.
This year, with four starters returning, even with the absence of Carter and the transfer of rising junior tailback Quincy Cullins to Newton, don’t be surprised if Eastside’s run game is the same kind of potent it was last season. It may seem like a misnomer to some to suggest that a smallish group of trenchermen could actually be the team’s offensive power point. But the one thing to remember about the Eagles’ fast-paced, spread scheme is offensive line coach Trey Camps doesn’t have to have big behemoths for it to be successful. Agile young men with high football IQs and a little mean streak have proven to do just fine. Eastside’s got that this year, plus experience. Should be fun to watch.
2. There’s a new swag emerging at Alcovy. Ultimately, spring game wins — or losses for that matter — don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, especially when August comes. That is, unless you’re a program that is looking for its mojo after three straight winless region records. Enter new Alcovy football coach Jason Dukes. From the social media presence, to new equipment, to the booming voice you can hear across the field that doesn’t mind declaring to his team that the other guys can’t hang with them — within earshot of the other guys — everything about this new regime at Alcovy passes the smell test.
There’s fresh energy. A new approach. Greater buy-in. Players say discipline and structure has improved. There’s also healthier bodies. The Robinson twins, Adrian and Andre have been dogged with injuries throughout most of their high school careers. But both are healthy, bigger, faster and stronger. And both seem focused to make the most out of their senior seasons. They’ll line up anywhere from wide receiver to running back to maybe even some wildcat quarterback. But Natorien Holloway is still the main dog in the offensive back field.
Rising sophomore MJ Stroud showed promise at quarterback, but if the Tigers find another capable signal caller, putting the 6-foot-2 athlete back at wideout just gives Alcovy another potent offensive weapon. The defense will have to replace sack master Jalen Banks, but the back seven looks solid. Next step for Alcovy is getting a full summer in with the staff, as both offensive and defensive coordinators were limited due to travel for the spring.
3. Things have calmed at Newton. Last year was probably one a lot of Newton Ram football players, coaches, former coaches, fans, parents, etc. would probably like to forget. At times it was rough on and off the field for an otherwise talented team that just couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.
Like Alcovy, the Rams have a new man at the helm in Camiel Grant, Jr. Also like Alcovy, Grant and his staff have seemingly injected a new flavor complete with increased brand appeal to the “N.” Never suffering a shortage of potential collegiate talent, Newton has college recruiters knocking down the door again at 1 Ram Way, this year primarily for the services of 4-star defensive back Nyland Green who’s coming close to 20 Power Five and Division I offers. But 4-star wideout Robert Lewis and athlete Diondre Glover are both starting to see their blip on the recruiting radar increase.
That all may seem old had for Newton, but this season the recruiting attention is providing a shot of confidence in the program’s arm, and a reminder to the rest of the football world that there is no bare cupboard of football talent at Covington and Newton County’s oldest school.
What’s more, unlike the Alcovy hire, Grant won’t have as much of a program learning curve with his new position as Dukes will. That’s because Grant had been in the Newton program for 10 years before his promotion. He knows the landscape and he seems to have the temperament and vision to help the Newton brand climb a couple of rungs on the Class AAAAAAA ladder.
4. The Class of 2023 may turn out to be special. Each school has a few young players who could push for immediate playing time in the right circumstances. One who stands head and shoulders above the rest right now is former Veterans Memorial defensive end Justin Benton.
Just one week removed from being an eighth grader, Benton’s been getting solid recruiting attention since midway through his eighth grade year at Veterans. Newton assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Josh Skelton called it “extremely rare” that a player as young as Benton is positioned to compete at the level he’s competing at now, especially given the fact that Newton plays in Georgia’s highest classification. And while he won’t anoint him or any of the talent incoming freshman as potential immediate starters, it says a lot for the coach to even suggest that their playing time can pretty much be what they make it, based on how they handle the preparation process for the new season.
5. It’s Noah Cook’s year in 2019. Last season was a breakout for Eastside’s now-senior quarterback. But in 2019, Cook will enter the year with lofty expectations. What else do you expect for a guy who threw for 2,100 yards, ran for another 400 and accounted for over 30 touchdowns while helping his team win a region champion and make history to boot.
Cook said he grew immensely in his weekend trip to Nashville’s Elite 11 Quarterback Camp. Whether or not he gets the nod to the next stage in Texas remains to be seen. But the fact that he was even invited and was able to rub elbows with some of the nation’s elite should bode well for him. With Alcovy breaking in new and unproven options behind center and Newton looking set to settle on Neal Howard at quarterback, it is safe to say that Cook should walk into 2019 as the best returning quarterback in Newton County, and possibly the entire Far East Metro area.